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Lawyers and Voice

Our NAIDOC Week series last week received a great response. Many loved Jeanine Leane’s Native Grasses poem.

Lawyers spoke honestly of the richness of their pro bono ‘test’ case experiences, with Noel Magee summing it up:

‘It was the right thing to do’.

Artist Lyn Hovey emailed her portrait of Kevin Buzzacott and kindly allowed us to include it here.

Image 1: Portrait of Kevin Buzzacott[1]

Lyn told us she, “did a black pencil drawing of him sitting out the back of the Arabunna Centre at Marree. He talked nonstop so his face was really mobile. … I was worried that the painting would be misinterpreted as Aboriginal people being thought of as part of flora and fauna, so the attached sign was exhibited with it.”

Image 2: Sign attached to exhibited painting, Kevin Buzzacott[2]

In today’s NewsFlash, writer and artist Shaun Tan has allowed us to circulate – for one month only – his wonderful story Bears with Lawyers that may serve as a reminder to those lawyers who recall:

‘We had no choice… We are sworn to uphold justice’.

Kellehers Australia prides itself on remembering Justice[3]. We have thousands of like-minded colleagues in Australia, throughout the LawAsia region and globally. We must never be silenced. We must never silence ourselves. We must not allow ourselves to be bought or threatened, no matter how terrifying, no matter the cost. We must be brave. Justice depends on it.

Shaun Tan tells a dramatic tale of ‘Bear clients’ – inscrutable and unyielding – staunch in their rights under ‘Bear law’. It tells of their fate – along with the fate of their lawyers.

In his blog post, Commentary on Tales from the Inner City, Tan says the Bears are:

“Trying to tell us something about our own successes and failures as a species, the meaning of our dreams and our true place in the world, albeit unclearly.”[4]

He also writes of Australia’s colonial history and the laws entrenched by it:

“Patterns of Australian colonial history, particularly … the way ‘enshrined’ legislation so easily collapses to the pressures of commercial interests and ulterior political motives. It’s always interesting to see how law can be an instrument of extreme prejudice and partiality, while claiming to be otherwise.”[5]

Not an Indigenous man, Tan corresponded with Kellehers over email where he said:

“I’m mixed race and know a little about being regarded as an outsider in the place where I grew up… . I don’t think the Bears are necessarily Indigenous either (although they could be). …

With these kinds of stories, I’m less interested in symbolism than parallels, so really [it’s] a question of whether a tale reminds us of any similar situation in the real world or feels truthful. …

I think part of the inspiration for this particular story was certainly Indigenous legal issues, land rights especially, and also the problem of ignored legal systems in post-colonial countries. I was also influenced by … reading Australian and American history. In particular, ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’ by Dee Brown, 1970, about the history of broken treaties in the US, a harrowing history that puts much of contemporary America in perspective, a land of deeply broken promises.”[6]

We asked him how the Bears chose their lawyers:

Again, I’ve never thought about these stories in a literal way. But I think it would rather be the case that legal activists sought out the bears, in the same way that lawyers and activists fight for those who cannot speak, whether due to cultural, educational or other differences, including species differences. I’m always impressed by those people who not only seek to solve existing problems, but go a step further and find problems that may have previously gone unnoticed or been silenced.

Of course, bears and cattle can’t seek legal representation by themselves, something I think human culture takes enormous unfair advantage of. I mean, imagine if they could? What a different kind of world we would be living in – and no doubt a more sustainable, broad-minded one…[7]

Why are some lawyers ‘sworn to uphold justice’ but others do not?  

I guess that’s a question for each lawyer, as well as their definitions of words like ’sworn’, ‘uphold’ and ‘justice’.

We are all fallible, we all have noble ideals and fall short of them for various reasons: power, money, convenience, indifference, security, compromise, self-delusion. I’m interested in what it takes for people to do the right thing even when that is very uncomfortable, or even holds them at a disadvantage, for example, helping bears to sue humans. In some ways that’s the best of human nature, being able to put justice ahead of self-interest, or rather, seeing a greater advantage for everyone, expanding the definition of self-interest to include society at large, maybe even the whole biosphere, if that’s at all possible.[8]


7 July 2021

[1] Lyn Hovey, 2009, Kevin Buzzacott. Reproduced with kind permission from the artist.

[2] Lyn Hovey, reproduced with permission via email communication with Dr Leonie Kelleher 10 July 2021.

[3] The team named its in-house dachshund – ‘Justice’.

[4] Shaun Tan, Commentary on ‘Tales From The Inner City’, July 2018 [Accessed: 12 July 2021] <https://www.shauntan.net/tfic-notes>.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Shaun Tan and Dr Kelleher’s email exchange 8 July 2021.

[7] Shaun Tan and Dr Kelleher’s email exchange 8 July 2021.

[8] Ibid.